Susan Masson, M.Ed.
Assistant Director of Talent and Innovation Programs
The University of Texas System
Over the last 20+ years, my career’s winding path took me to a small regional institution, a mid-size private institution and a large state institution before I landed at one of the nation’s largest public higher education systems, The University of Texas System (UTS). When I began at UTS, its size and scale were daunting (and, in truth, with over 243,000 students enrolled in UT institutions across Texas, it often still is). Over time, I realized that the foundational lessons I learned through projects across previous organizations, departments, and teams held true. Connection, credibility, and collaboration drive our ability to impact student lives. Simple…yet, in our busy lives, easy to leave to happenstance rather than keep at the forefront and manage with intention.
As higher education leaders, it is imperative that we take a renewed look at how we impact the student experience through a post-COVID lens. Reflecting on the fundamentals of connection, credibility and collaboration, and rekindling our efforts to maintain them can uncover new opportunities to foster professional relationships that elevate our teams and empower our students. Within our institutions, across our states and regions or in coordination with existing networks, strategically applying these intentional lenses provides extraordinary leverage to develop and manage projects for greater impact. Our recent shift to a more virtual environment and improved comfort level with it become an advantage.
CONNECTION. As my boss often says, you must be known to be liked and liked to be trusted. Make getting and staying connected a priority. Know your colleagues; not just your immediate career services team, but peers who work in affiliated offices. Make a point to break out of your silos, meet other student affairs professionals across campus and share your experiences. Take an academic advisor to lunch (or meet up for a virtual coffee chat) and dig into how they advise and what they are hearing from students. At a macro level, don’t wait for annual conferences. Create opportunities to expand your connections beyond your institution to others within your system or region and connect on a regular basis. Use the technology at your disposal to meet virtually rather than waiting a year to meet in person.
At UTS, the career services directors from our eight academic institutions meet every other month to discuss current issues, celebrate successes and learn from one another. The initial connections were made face-to-face at a summer 2019 summit at UTS headquarters in Austin, but the quarterly meetings are conducted exclusively online. The director meetings led to the development of quarterly virtual meet ups for two segments of their teams, career counselors and employer relations, and these regular virtual gatherings created a new level of community. During COVID, it has been particularly helpful, creating a safe and supportive space to share and validate experiences.
The sharing of pandemic-related documents and policies as they were developed at individual institutions allowed others to iterate rather than reinvent the wheel. In the data sphere, the relationships and common understanding of one another’s operations and challenges enables a high level of feedback to UTS as we refine seekUT and associated custom platforms. And in operations, connections lead to connections. UTSA introduced PurePost to the other institutions as a potential tool for veterans in their job searches.
CREDIBILITY. Building credibility takes time and effort. It requires letting go of a “one and done” mentality and showing up…regularly.
Cultivate authentic relationships and do what you say you’re going to do.
Look for small opportunities to demonstrate that you follow through.
Did you mention an article in a conversation with a colleague? Send it.
Did you think of a useful idea two days later? Take the time to share.
Do you know someone that would be a great resource? Make the connection.
Show your sincere interest by listening, asking questions and following up. And keep doing it repeatedly over time.
The UTS career services director meetings allowed colleagues from across the state to get to know each other through regular interactions. As they sought advice from one another and began to share insights, they built credibility and now leverage one another as trusted resources. To facilitate ongoing communication, we created a Microsoft Team for UTS Career Services professionals. The directors often leverage their channel to solicit peer input and share resources between quarterly meetings.
Within organizations, making the effort to build credibility with faculty and other student-facing departments is more essential than ever. As career services evolves (finally!) from a siloed, opt-in extracurricular for the few to a central and required component for all students, maximize the opportunity for impact by demonstrating career services expertise far and wide. Consider leveraging Microsoft Teams or other communication tools at your disposal to bring together groups from different departments and even different institutions with a common purpose. It can provide a low-risk opportunity to build trust and credibility outside of meetings.
COLLABORATION. As COVID set in and institutions pivoted to virtual environments in spring 2020, career services from across UTS came together to host the first system-wide virtual career fair. This collaboration leveraged the size of System and the reach of our institutions’ networks to offer a new opportunity to students and employers. Organized entirely via video conferencing, staff were involved from multiple institutions, dividing and conquering tasks. One institution took the lead in liaising with the platform vendor. Two others managed employer vetting. Another worked with the initial marketing. And all institutions promoted the event to their networks of employers and, of course, to their students. The groundwork for this collaboration, which came together with remarkable speed thanks to COVID-induced urgency, was laid in the regular interactions among our directors. Three years prior, this would have been a much heavier lift…the connections and trust hadn’t been built to enable a cross-institutional project like this.
At a micro level, within individual organizations, consider existing events and relationships and determine how the addition of a career component could be a value add. Does your school hold an event to explore academic majors? Have career advisors join in and share potential career paths and outcomes side-by-side with degree plans and affiliated student organizations. Know a faculty member who brings in industry speakers? Volunteer to bring the career lens to the session or provide supplementary materials around finding a job in that industry as follow up.
Connection, credibility and collaboration are no easy feats. They require an investment of time and energy, both of which are in short supply for many of us right now. However, your efforts don’t have to happen all at once; they can build over time. Leverage existing connections and relationships with an eye toward expanding opportunities as you can. Keeping connection, credibility and collaboration at the forefront and managing them intentionally will allow you to build them back into your regular routine as circumstances permit.
Susan Masson is a creative problem solver, a program designer and a professional development expert. In her current role in The University of Texas System Office of Talent and Innovation, Susan is creating and implementing programs and partnerships that help prepare UT students for post-graduation career success and strengthen talents of UT System Administration employees.
Susan’s higher education career includes a diverse range of roles including positions in international education, career management, academic advising, and residence life. She was a core member of the UT Austin McCombs MBA Career Management team that was named one of the best MBA career centers in America by Poets & Quants in 2019 and received two teaching awards as a lecturer for the Strategic Career Planning course. Susan earned a BA in English Literature from Rhodes College, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from The University of South Carolina, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa.